In the early 1980s, Istomin became fond of Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto. He had once heard the composer play it in Philadelphia. The work had been pulled to pieces when it was premiered. Critics spoke of a debacle, a “monument of boredom, length, banality and toc”, one of them daring to write that “Mrs. Cécile Chaminade might safely have perpetrated it on her third glass of vodka”. Two revisions were not enough to improve its reputation. When he came to record it with Rachmaninoff at the piano, Jack Pfeiffer, the artistic director of RCA refused to pay for any rehearsal time and the recording was the first run-through with the orchestra!
Istomin recognized that it contained a mix of Rachmaninoff’s Russian soul and American culture. Such an association touched him deeply because, as the son of a Russian émigré, he had experienced and felt the same things. But for many musicians and music lovers, this concerto was an indigestible hodgepodge – music for nightclubs. Istomin agreed but added: “Nightclub music, yes, but sublime!” Istomin did not hold nightclub music in contempt, and even loved Frank Sinatra.
Rostropovich conducting the National Symphony
Istomin first performed Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Concerto in September 1983 with the National Symphony under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich. Who better than Slava could understand this music and be attentive to his soloist and friend? The reception from the audience and critics was very warm. Joseph McLellan reported enthusiastically in the Washington Post: “Rostropovich and the National Symphony and Eugene Istomin gave Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto the performance of a lifetime. Istomin’s solo performance was a revelation… Rostropovich’s interpretation was both thoughtful and powerful – a bit understated at the beginning while he was seeking an ideal balance with the soloist, but quite powerful and assured thereafter. Istomin emphasized the American elements in the music more than any performer I have heard, without disguising its essentially Russian soul, and it was most effective.”
Istomin played it again a few weeks later with the Rochester Philharmonic. It happened to be more difficult because there was not enough time to rehearse. On the first evening, there were a few lapses and hesitations in the orchestra. The next day, thanks to David Zinman’s dedication and expertise, everything worked perfectly.
Istomin would have liked to continue to play and even record this concerto which was so close to his heart. He admired the recording made by Michelangeli in 1957, but thought that his own version would be quite different, and most likely, more idiomatic! However, orchestras and conductors were very reluctant to program an unfamiliar work which required extensive rehearsal and would not attract concert-goers. In the following seasons, there were very few proposals, none of which provided sufficient guarantees about the orchestra level, the conductor or the allotted rehearsal time. Istomin could not bear the idea of giving botched performances of this concerto, and eventually removed it from his repertoire.